What Andre Braugher can teach us about postmodern TV

Last night, I watched season six, episode thirteen of Law & Order, a show dear to my heart. It was great. What made it especially great was that it was a crossover with another show dear to my heart, Homicide: Life On The Streets, and in particular it brought Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) from Baltimore to NYC to team up with the NYPD.

If you like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and you haven’t watched Homicide, do: Braugher’s performance is a complete joy. Pembleton’s whole deal is that he’s a very charismatic guy, but Braugher’s own natural charisma overspills and goes beyond Pempleton’s in a unique and very watchable way. He’s almost — but not — too good.

The plot was about a white supremacist who bombed a subway coming from Harlem, and whose modus operandi was notably similar to that of someone who had bombed a black church in Baltimore five years earlier. An almost parodically evil lawyer attempted to get the racist off, but an almost parodically good Jack McCoy won out, delivering a stirring peroration about racism to the jury at the end. All in all, a great 47 minutes of television.

But something puzzled me. This particular episode, which is highly representative of the series as a whole, aired in February 1996. A couple of weeks earlier you could have watched an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry stole, on the street, a loaf of bread from an old lady. And a couple of weeks before that, you could have watched an episode of The Simpsons in which George H.W. Bush moves in opposite the Simpsons and fights with Homer.

These sitcoms are cynical, nihilistic, and (in a sense to be explained) postmodern. By contrast, Law & Order is none of those things. It’s a formulaic procedural in which good tends to win out over evil, and the heroes are employees of the state.

(I don’t mean ‘formulaic’ pejoratively: the ability of Law & Order in particular to follow its formula is, to me, close to awe-inspiring: watch an episode and you will see that not a single line of dialogue is irrelevant, not a single scene overplays by even a second (by contrast, much so-called prestige TV has exactly these faults). Any comparison would be pretentious and silly-sounding, but it really is a feat of dramatic engineering.)

So here’s a question: what’s the deal with this difference between cynical, playful, postmodern sitcoms and straight cop shows?

Here’s another way to ask that question: you might think that the sort of person who enjoys Seinfeld and The Simpsons will be exactly the sort of person who will not enjoy good vs evil police procedurals. Yet the US audience of the time, presumably, liked both. What does that say about such audiences, about how we relate to fictions, about how fictions reflect the values of the time?

I can’t answer all those big questions. But I will propose a theory that can explain why sitcoms were postmodern while drama series were not. I will do so by presenting a theory of cultural evolution. In particular, by looking at subsequent sitcoms and cop shows, I’ll suggest this: since the millennium, cop shows have become more postmodern while comedy shows have become less so. In general, TV in the late twentieth century went from straight to postmodern and thence to postpostmodern. The only difference is that for sitcoms, postmodernism began in the mid-90s, roughly, while for the cop show it only kicked in around the millennium. The two genres are following the same evolutionary path, they just began at different times. Our story begins in 2018, with Braugher in Brooklyn Nine-Nine as Captain Raymond Holt; it will end in the mid-90s with Braugher as Pembleton in Homicide. Tracing comedy and drama in this Braugherian way will give us our theory.

Having just heard a pun about a Hungarian cellist Holt is — as you can see — cracking up.

US Sitcoms Since The 90s: The Decline Of Postmodernism

Postmodernism is hard to define, but as I will use it in this essay it has the following features: it involves (i) a mixing of high and low culture, (ii) a playfulness about form and recognition of itself as fictive, (iii) a tendency towards presenting a lot of factual information about the world, and (iv) a mixing of the personal with events of social or world historical momentousness. (It is thus markedly different from the postmodernism that people think portends the decline of truth, objectivity, Western civilisation &c — we could call it cultural postmodernism, to make the distinction.)

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is paradigm (cultural) postmodernism: it’s a story about the second world war where psychological and mathematical theories appear alongside vaudeville and scatological humour (i), a story so meticulously researched that you can acquire a lot of information about war-torn London (about the German weaponry used on it, about what songs were playing on what radio station on what day at what hour, about much else) from reading it (iii), a story in which the fate of the allies is tied up with the erections of its kind of sillyly named protagonist Tyrone Slothrop (i,iv). Other paradigm works which exhibit postmodernism’s playfulness and awareness of itself as fictive (i.e. (ii)) include Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy (with its protagonist called Paul Auster), David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (a central character in which is called David Wallace), and John Barth’s Lost In the Funhouse, which is a collection of short stories about what it is to be a short story.

With that in mind, consider Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which first aired in 2013). Does it have any of these features? I suggest that the answer to this is no. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is good simply because it’s a good sitcom. It relies on no playfulness, it doesn’t concern itself much with grand socio-political events, its tone is even, it doesn’t wink to the camera and break the fourth wall to let the reader know that it is a sitcom. It wouldn’t — apart from the fact that people of colour occupy most of its main roles and it’s otherwise much more socially progressive — be out of place in the 1980s.

So what, you might think. Why expect TV sitcoms to be postmodern? Well, because they were. To see this, rewind a bit.

What came before Brooklyn? Well, for one, the US version of The Office. Now let’s again ask: does it have any postmodern features? Not really, apart from one thing: it’s a mockumentary. This is a very important feature (a feature shared by the in other respects similar Parks And Rec). The reason for this is that it lets the writers break the fourth wall and thus the show can convey an awareness of itself as a fiction (thus exhibiting the paradigm postmodern feature (ii)) while giving us, in other respects a straight sitcom. It essentially does this by cleverly bringing the fourth wall into the show, so it can break it while still remaining in its own self-contained fictional universe. It flirts with postmodernism, I think.

The Office is more postmodern than Brooklyn, anyway. The reason for this, I suggest, is the following: in 2005 when the show started, a straight up sitcom would have felt off to viewers. They were used — as we’ll see in a second — to their comedy being more self-aware, more playful with form, and a straight up portrayal of people working, living and loving at a paper office wouldn’t have flown. The mockumentary format, I propose, was used to ween viewers away from postmodernism.

To see this, consider what comes before The Office. Arrested Development (beginning in 2003) is arguably the standout early post-millennium sitcom. And with it we are in postmodern territory. It plays with form (ii). It has a narrator who is not an impartial observer and recorder of events: he interjects his own opinions, corrects people when they get his name wrong, and so on. It is endlessly self-referential: many jokes (about chicken dancing, cornballers, Star Wars reenacting) pop up again and again, referring back to themselves (what fancy theorists would call inter-, or rather intra-, textuality). It has the Pynchonian mixture of the personal and the political (iv), as when petty crook George Bluth finds himself involved in the Iraq war. It is crammed with (albeit fictional) information (iii), presented in a documentary format — websites, news reports, adverts for old products, and so on. It even has silly Pynchonian names (GOB, Maeby, etc.)!

If you weren’t convinced before, I hope you’re now coming round to the thought that postmodernism has been a part of recent sitcoms.

What was before Arrested Development? Now we’re in the 90s, and we have The Simpsons and Seinfeld. Playing with form (ii) is almost compulsive: from Seinfeld’s show within a show about nothing to Bart whistling The Simpsons theme while sliding down the banister. The personal and the political are completely flattened in The Simpsons(iv): it’s only barely a coincidence that within a month of the first airing of the episode of L&O I watched last night an episode of The Simpsons aired the premise of which was that Homer squabbles with a former president. And it blends high and low culture (i): it’s the sort of show you literally need annotations for, but a lot of its humour is just: Homer falls down or hurts himself. It has all the features of the postmodern, I claim. Arguably, in fact, The Simpsons is the most postmodern work in any medium there has yet been.

What’s the point of this reverse chronology? Well, played forward, this is what it suggests: US sitcoms have gradually been depostmodernifying themselves. The reason for this, plausibly, is just that The Simpsons did postmodernism so well that people had to try something else, but at the same time they couldn’t move away from the postmodern model too quickly because it would jar with audiences. So, instead, we witnessed it gradually happen: gradually postmodern features got taken out of the best sitcoms, and so today we watch Braugher as Ray Holt helming a precinct which — diversity notwithstanding — wouldn’t be out of place in pre-Simpsonian times. TV sitcoms have gone past the postmodern and have looped back around: they are, let’s say, postpostmodern.

Now here’s a question: can we use this theory to explain the genre of the US cop show? I will suggest that we can.

Braugher as Frank Pembleton

Postmodernism Comes Late: Cop Shows

Let’s stick in the 90s, and let’s consider Braugher’s erstwhile role as Detective Frank Pembleton. Actually, let’s not — it’s been a while since I watched Homicide, whereas Law & Order is fresh in my mind. I think many of the same things apply to each, however.

So, first, there is nothing at all postmodern about Law & Order. It’s completely straight. It doesn’t recognise itself as a cop show — there’s no playing with form. There’s no jarring mixture of tones, no blend of high and low culture. There’s no interweaving of the personal and the political. There’s no moral ambiguity: instead of the amoral nihilists like the Seinfeld gang, we have a good old traditional morality play pitting good — the cops and attorneys — vs bad, the criminals and their slippery lawyers.

Now, I have to confess I don’t know the answer to one very important question: why, when The Simpsons was postmodern, was Law &Order straight? I suspect that properly to answer that I would have to go back to 80s cop shows, but at the time of writing I haven’t watched any of them, unfortunately.

But there’s still much interesting to say. Because the theory of sitcoms I presented above, if it is to apply to cop shows, yields a prediction: if genres move from straight to postmodern (from the caring Cosbys to the hateful Seinfeldians, from — to ape famous words by Barbara Bush — the Waltons to The Simpsons) and then to postpostmodern, then we should expect that the straight period of cop shows be followed by a postmodern phase.

And that is exactly what we find! The Wire (which first aired in 2002), arguably the successor of the procedural, I’ll now argue, is postmodern. This might sound surprising: after all, is not the first word people reach for when they speak of it ‘Dickensian’, with its implications of the straight up 19th century social realist novel?

But actually, looking closely, we see many — though, I admit, not all — of the hallmarks of postmodernism. Its central character is almost parodic of the genre (ii): the drunk detective who by god gets results. Two of the other detectives’ names are distinctly Pynchonian: Polk and Mahon (cf. the Anglified Irish pogue mahone, kiss my ass). More importantly, it mixes seriousness with slapstick (i): think of the infamous ‘fuck — bullet’ scene (I trust that suffices to describe it to fans), or the equally famous scene where a drunk Bunk burns his clothes to hide evidence of a one-night stand without thinking about how he’ll get from the location of the one-night stand to his home. It has far-fetched, almost comedic plots concerning matters of great social importance, as when Major Colvin attempts to legalize drugs in an area of Baltimore (iv-ish).

And, like Pynchon and Foster Wallace, it bombards us with facts (iii): with police and projects slang whose meaning you just have to work out for yourself and which combine to give its fictional world a sense of informational depth typical of the postmodern.

I think that’s enough to make the case: The Wire, contrary to what you might think, but in line with my theory of cultural evolution, is postmodern. The next obvious question to ask is: what’s next? If my theory is to be right, we should expect the 2010s to have given us postpostmodern cop shows.

Do they? Here I must confess some doubt. Consider True Detective season 1 (2014). On the one hand, it has none of the features characteristic of postmodernism. It’s unrelentingly dark, with no slapstick. It doesn’t impart worldly information. It doesn’t play with form. It doesn’t mix personal and political. On the other hand, it has none of the features of straight series, like the episodic morally certain cop shows of the 90s.

But this hypothesis doesn’t seem unreasonable: True Detective, somewhat like The Office, is a transitional show. It’s neither postmodern but nor is it straight. And that would make pretty good sense for my theory, timeline-wise: given the transition to postmodernity in the cop show came a few years later than it did for the sitcom, we should expect the transition to postpostmodernity to come similarly later.

A good theory should make falsifiable predictions. And so I conclude with one that the theory of cultural evolution I have presented here makes: in the 2020s we will see the advent of postpostmodern cop shows, shows which are much more similar to the classic morally univocal, tightly plotted shows of the 90s. Let’s see how my prediction fares in a couple years time, but even before then I hope I’ve done something to show you that culture obeys patterns — one might say laws — that can be found if you look close enough.